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How to… Start with WHY

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In the second of my “How to…” series, you are going to learn how to how to start with WHY. This will give you a compelling edge to your presentation and leave people feeling inspired to action as a result of listening to you.

WHY is about purpose, but it is much more than that. It is a tried and trusted technique to grab your audience’s attention at the beginning of your talk, and it provides a framework for you to start with a bang.

At its simplest, WHY stands for:

W            What is this presentation about?

H             Hooks – Why should people listen?

Y              Your aim – What is the goal or outcome you want? What is the action?

A compelling presentation will often start with these three elements towards the beginning. Sometimes they will be really obvious; sometimes less so. What you are aiming to do, however, remains the same: start your presentation strong and get the audience’s attention from the get-go.

I would personally recommend trying to cover these points in the first few sentences of your presentation. I believe it is important to set expectations clear from the beginning – and doing so in the first few sentences can set you up for success later on.

In fact, not only that, I would recommend doing it twice at the beginning of your presentation: once in a very short form, and then slightly longer, before getting into the meat of your talk.

For example, this short version might be something like:

“In this presentation, I’m going to talk about how to give effective presentations (W). By the end of my talk, you will have three new tips you can apply for your next presentation (H). My goal is to help you improve (Y).”

The longer version might expand these three elements into a short paragraph each, as I outline below.


What is this presentation about?

This is where you set the topic of your talk, and if necessary, present your bona fides. It is always helpful to remind people and to set the agenda.  In the slightly longer version, you might cover your key agenda items, talk about what is “coming up…”, and give some teasers for what you are going to talk about.

If I am using case studies or examples from other fields, I’ll often say something like this:

“In this presentation, I’m going to share with you some tricks on how to be a better presenter. We’re going to draw on lessons from NASA, the alleys of Soweto, the statues of Easter Island, and what Sesame Street can tell us about Japanese cuisine.”

I just made that up, but the point is that you try to find something expected … and unexpected to start your presentation with. People will expect that they are in the room and (in my example) will be expecting a presentation on how to be a better presenter. But they hopefully won’t expect the random selection of examples or case studies I am going to cite.

A good way to bore your audience is to tease them with some examples they will already know, or some clichés. So: find some examples or reference points that are unexpected and will jolt your audience so that want to know “how the heck is he going to get from Sesame Street to Japanese cuisine? I must listen to find out.”


Hooks: why should people listen?

In this section, your job is to give the audience a clear view of what they will get for their time. How will listening to you help them do their job better? What is in it for them? What is the benefit?

To do this successfully, you will need to understand your audience and their motivations. Frame your ‘hooks’ section in a way that will appeal to their need and help them be more successful (if relevant).

“In the next half hour, I am going to teach you how to be a better presenter. You will come away with three tips and ideas that you can instantly adopt in your next presentation. This will help you make a bigger impact next time you need to.”

And now the audience is thinking, “oh, right, this is for me. I need to know these things…this is going to help me.”

Unless you give your audience a reason to listen they might not work it out for themselves.


Your aim: what is the goal or action you are looking for?

This is where you as a presenter spell out your goals for the session. What do you consider success? What do you want your audience to do, think or feel differently after listening to you?

By spelling out your aim at the beginning you will be making expectations clear and it will be easier to judge the success, or otherwise, of your talk.

“My goal for this session it to provide you with the tools and techniques you need to be a better presenter. If you apply one of these tools in your next presentation and promise to never, ever, read your bullet points again, then I will be a happy man.”

If you are doing a sales presentation then your goal is clearly to win the pitch, get the job or whatever. It pays to be clear about this too.


Different flavours

There are times when I use this technique quite visibly. My first three sentences will be in the WHY format. There will be other times, though, the technique is a bit more a subtle. It depends on context and the type of presentation I am doing.

Choose a strong or weak flavour of the technique to align with what else you are doing in your talk and thinking about the rest of your session.

A ‘strong’ flavour might be as I outlined above, with each of the WHY elements really obvious to someone who knows the technique.

A ‘weak’ version could be something a bit more subtle, like this:

“In the next half hour we’re going to talk about improving presentation skills. I’m going to share three key tips that will help you leave this session a better presenter.”

But even in its weaker version, a clear WHY at the beginning can help your audience know ‘why’ they should listen to you.


If you liked this, you might also like

7 Surprisingly Simple Ways to Keep Your Audience Hooked

Rethinking Title Slides

10 Tips for… Starting Brilliantly

Stephen Welch

Stephen is an independent communications and leadership consultant. He works with individuals and organizations to improve how they communicate their messages and drive change. As part of his work, Stephen provides presentation skills and communication coaching to organizations such as a major UK Government Department, a Swiss Bank, and an independent futurist. He is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, and a Council Member of the Public Relations and Communications Association (PRCA).

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